At Hayground School, a Trip Back in Time to Explore Analog Filmmaking

Mono No Aware founder Steve Cossman, standing, leads a lesson on filmmaking for students ages six through 11 at the Hayground School. Christine Sampson photo
Mono No Aware founder Steve Cossman, standing at center, leads a lesson on filmmaking for students ages six through 11 at the Hayground School. Christine Sampson photo

By Christine Sampson

Film technology advances so far so frequently these days it can often feel hard to keep up with what you’re watching on the silver screen, but last Thursday, a visiting artist took a group of Hayground School film students on a trip back in time to explore the art of animation in order to help them expand their own skill sets.

Steve Cossman, the founder of the Brooklyn-based organization Mono No Aware, led the students in Liz Bertsch and Mbachi Kumwenda’s class in a hands-on lesson in analog film production. He started with the anatomy of film, how it is processed and how it is projected, as well as the basics of animation. The students were in awe over the old-school Eike film projector Mr. Cossman brought with him. He displayed a long strip of film and compared it to the linear timeline the students often work with on their digital editing software. The students murmured a collective “oh” in sudden understanding.

“I think it’s important to understand the history of anything you study,” Mr. Cossman said as the students shuffled off to lunch. “The language of technology is all built off of that. You have a better understanding of it moving forward, maybe even a better appreciation.”

Then it was time to work. Starting with black-and-white “found footage” from old Westerns and musicals on 16-millimeter film, the students modified film strips using colorful Bombay inks, stickers and other materials to create their own original works. Mr. Cossman formed them into actual loops of film – that, he said, is the origin of the modern term “loop,” referring to a video segment that plays over and over again – so the students could view their wildly creative, colorful finished work on the projector.

From left, Phoenix Bliss, Dash Breen and Leonardo Dougherty practice drawing and painting directly on strips of “found footage” 16 millimeter film. Christine Sampson photo

“This is amazing,” said student Leonardo Dougherty, 11. “I like how you can draw stuff, touch it, use it, make it, and cut it instead of doing it digitally. I like the whole process. It’s super fun.”

“I didn’t really know this much about film, so it’s really cool to learn it,” classmate Dash Breen, 10, added.

Phoenix Bliss, 11, said he “never knew you could bring animation this far.”

The students said the film workshop gave them ideas for their future projects. The curriculum of their class, in which the students range in age from six to 11, is centered around a year-long filmmaking project that forms the context for working on their core academic subjects.

“We’ve never worked with analog filmmaking — it was all digital filmmaking. Here I see them expanding their repertoire, what’s available to them to tell their stories,” said Ms. Bertsch, who read about Mr. Cossman’s Mono No Aware in the New York Times recently and immediately reached out to him to talk about visiting the Hayground School. “I think it’s rare and unique that Steve even exists and that the kids can have this opportunity.”

Mono No Aware, now in its 11th year, is an expanded cinema arts festival that Mr. Cossman said “works counter to streaming media.” The organization’s name itself is a Japanese phrase that, loosely translated, refers to “a connection with something that is ephemeral,” Mr. Cossman said. Last year, over 21 nights, the festival drew more than 4,000 people and represented the work of 150 artists. What started as a project in his living room with a darkroom in his bathroom eventually blossomed into a recently-opened, formal artistic laboratory in Brooklyn. There, Mono No Aware maintains a gallery and cinema space that combines film with live elements such as dance, music or other types of performance art. There is also an educational program, and Mr. Cossman travels throughout the greater New York area visiting schools and leading field trips.

“We show all kids of work with the idea of a shared experience for bringing people together for dialogue and conversation,” he said.

He also teaches as an adjunct professor of film at Cooper Union.

“These kids are engaged as the college students,” Mr. Cossman said of the Hayground film students.